Oryx and Crake: Genetic Engineering Gone Seriously Wrong
Scanning the ingredient lists of popular food products, we find that many of our culture’s most beloved snacks sound more like science experiments than anything else. Yellow Dye #5, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Thiamine mononitrate, dextrose—these are a just few of the chemicals we routinely inject into “food” today. Sounds scary, huh? Well, Margaret Atwood takes it one step further. Extrapolating our world into the future, she paints a horrific portrait of the food industry years from now.
In Oryx and Crake, Atwood envisions a post-apocalyptic future in which science and technology has run amok. In this fictional society, food has become something synthetic and plastic, manufactured in a laboratory by men in white coats. Atwood’s disturbing world is populated by monstrous hybrid animals called pigoons and wolvigs, new species created through genetic engineering. Jimmy, the novel’s protagonist, is said to pry open cans of “Sveltana No-Meat Cocktail Sausages” and “SoyOBoy” sardines. The notion of “farm-to-table” eating has been rendered entirely obsolete; Jimmy’s mother nostalgically recalls her father’s grapefruit orchard, which was wiped away during a devastating drought years ago.
Crake presents an example of what happens when the relentless pursuit of science and technology overrides ethical and humanistic concerns. He creates a group of people called “Crakers,” genetically engineered humans who are programmed to worship him as a deity. Later, seduced by his own genius, he creates a lethal genetic pandemic and uses it to kill off the majority of humanity. The result of Crake’s sadistic experiments? Genetic engineering gone completely, utterly wrong.
Atwood’s novel got me thinking about genetic engineering and genetically-modified food in our world today. When it comes to food, my general philosophy is, “if my great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize it as food, don’t eat it.” After all, during my great-grandmother’s lifetime, food was something that came from the earth, rather than from a factory. Living on a small farm in Southeastern Wisconsin, my great-grandmother consumed chicken that had once freely roamed green pastures, or fresh carrots that had been pulled straight from the soil. If my great-grandmother were alive today to stroll the aisles of any modern supermarket, I suspect she would be entirely bewildered by the “food” products she were to find lining the shelves. She might be intrigued by the fluorescent-orange, spongy specimens we call “Cheetos,” for example, or baffled by the cream-stuffed marvel that we know as the Twinkie. Such foods, although undoubtedly tasty, are also laden with chemicals and processed ingredients.
Although our society is a long way off from that depicted in Oryx and Crake, Atwood poses a caveat about the dangers of genetic engineering. To be sure, there is no harm in the occasional Twinkie indulgence, but as the novel demonstrates, we should also be careful not to allow genetic engineering to go completely out of hand.